Is Sundance searching for "Searching for Sugar Man?"
It may be unfair to describe the festival's 2013 programming philosophy as an attempt to find another music-related documentary with the breakout potential of that Oscar-nominated doc, which debuted in Park City one year ago. But this year's lineup contains a number of rock-oriented docs, and the precedent set by "Sugar Man" certainly hangs over screenings.
Morgan Neville's "Twenty Feet From Stardom," one of the opening-night films (as "Sugar Man" was), is by all reports an invigorating tribute to some of rock 'n' roll's greatest background singers. "Pussy Riot – a Punk Prayer" chronicles the Russian punk band whose members were sentenced to seven years in prison for a satirical performance.
And two of the highest-profile non-fiction entries at the festival are Alison Ellwood's "History of the Eagles Part 1," which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Eccles, and Dave Grohl's "Sound City," which debuted Friday afternoon.
(Left to right at the premiere: Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmidt, Glenn Frey and Don Henley.)
"History of the Eagles Part 1," which just sold to Showtime and is scheduled to premiere on the cable network on Feb. 15 (with "Part 2" the following night), is as straightforward as its title. Using a surprising amount of old footage that had been shot by the band members in the 1970s, it takes a chronological trip through the career of the Los Angeles-based country-rock band that grew less country and more rock as its record sales grew.
The Eagles' story is rife with infighting and ego and excess, and Ellwood and producer Alex Gibney don't shy away from this side of the story. But neither do they put much emphasis on it; in truth, you'd get more of a sense of the role substance abuse played by listening to the band members talk after the screening than by watching the movie.
The film also takes for granted the significance and importance of the Eagles' music, never touching on the band's often contentious relationship with music critics who regularly complained about its slickness and its undercurrents of misogyny.
So this is a doc for fans who want to glory in the sound of hits like "Hotel California," "Take It Easy" and "Life in the Fast Lane," and who want to learn a little of the back story, as told by vets who seem to have a pretty good perspective on the grand noise they created.
The film takes more than two hours just to tell the first half of the story, which ends with the band's breakup on 1980. (The second part, Eagles singer-drummer Don Henley said at a Q&A following the premiere, will deal a bit with the band's solo careers, and then with their 1994 reunion and lucrative touring schedule.)
The involvement of Alex Gibney in the project, said guitarist-singer Glenn Frey after the screening, came when the band began looking for a documentary filmmaker who could tell their story.
"We're all venturing into our early 60s, and we thought, maybe we should all get together and talk about this while we still remember," he said. "I looked at a lot of music documentaries and was left wanting, so I called my manager and said, 'Can you just send me reels from the guys who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary?''
The reel from Gibney (who won for "Taxi From the Dark Side") "jumped off the screen," he said, and the filmmaker agreed to come on board to chronicle what Frey calls "this 500-pound gorilla called the Eagles that has been dragging us around for 42 years."
Frey also said that the band may use some of the doc's footage on their next tour. "We're looking to go back on the road and do some shows," he said. "Maybe incorporate a little footage along the way."
From the audience, a man shouted, "How about coming back and doing a show in Park City?"
Frey shook head and laughed. "It's hard enough singing these songs at sea level, pal."
Dave Grohl, on the other hand, sang a lot of songs in the Park City altitude on Friday night, celebrating his doc "Sound City" with a three-hour concert at Park City Live.
Performing alongside members of his current band, the Foo Fighters, and his past one, Nirvana, Grohl was also joined by John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield and Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, all of whom recorded at the studio chronicled in Grohl's movie.
The movie is first-time director Grohl's valentine to the San Fernando Valley recording studio that produced classic albums from the 1970s (Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush," Fleetwood Mac's "Fleetwood Mac," Tom Petty's "Damn the Torpedoes") through the '90s (Nirvana's "Nevermind"), before falling prey to the digital revolution.
Before the film's premiere on Friday afternoon, Grohl greeted the audience with an incredulous, "Hi everybody! I'm a director!" The film, he added, "is the most important thing I've ever done artistically."
He may have been overstating the case a bit there: I don't know how you could argue that "Sound City" will ever have the cultural impact that, say, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did.
Grohl's movie is also two films in one: an affectionate tour through Sound City's history that takes up the first hour or so, and then an additional half-hour of footage of stars such as Nicks, Springfield, Fogerty, Trent Reznor and Paul McCartney recording newer songs on the Neve console, which Grohl now owns and uses in his own studio.
The ending sequence plays like a DVD extra, and also like an ad for the upcoming soundtrack album. But it also rocks, which is pretty much what matters here.
"My purpose was to inspire the next generation of kids to fall in love with music the way I did," said Grohl, who wisely let dozens of songs make the case for the studio more powerfully than any talking heads ever could.
The film is obviously the work of a neophyte director who could have used a few more weeks in the editing room, but it's got a damn good beat and you can dance to it.